One of the most important technology initiatives in the world today affecting retailers and their trading partners is data synchronization -- a fancy way of saying getting the data straight, making sure the information about ketchup that the supplier has is the same as that used by the retailer.
Why is this important? For one thing, when data are out of sync, retailers don't know what they're being billed for and don't know how much they really owe their suppliers. It's an issue that costs the industry billions of dollars. It bedevils branded suppliers and retailers, and becomes even more complicated in the private-label arena.
At the Private Label Manufacturers Association's annual trade show, Store Brands Confidential, taking place Nov. 16-18 in Chicago, data synchronization will be the focus of an industry panel discussion on private label and UCCnet, the data synchronization division of the Uniform Code Council, Lawrenceville, N.J. Moderated by Len Lewis, Lewis Communications, the panel will feature Rhonda Horn, vice president, business development, UCCnet, and John Graham, vice president of sales, Clement Pappas & Co., Seabrook, N.J. It takes place Sunday Nov. 16, from 2-4 p.m.
In the food retailing industry, Shaw's Supermarkets, West Bridgewater, Mass., a venerable New England-based chain of 190 stores, is one of the leading proponents and practitioners of data synchronization, both for branded and private-label suppliers. The chain was an early subscriber to UCCnet's Global Registry, a key component of the worldwide effort under way to bring data synchronization to retailers and their suppliers. The Global Registry is a directory where suppliers can register their product data (such as name, size, UPC, flavor, etc.), validate the accuracy of the data, establish ownership of the data, publish it to retailers, and indicate where the data can be accessed. It's a kind of phone directory for the world of consumer product information.
Shaw's is now in production mode for synchronizing data via UCCnet with 31 suppliers, having matched around 4,000 supplier items to those in its database, and corrected information on about 1,500 of those items. More recently, since UCCnet released the latest version of its data synchronization services, Release 2.2, at the end of July, the chain is in production with a few of its private-label suppliers, said Jim Sheehan, Shaw's strategic process leader, adding that Shaw's is testing electronic data synchronization with two or three private-label suppliers.
"The base problem is the same with private label as it is with branded suppliers," Sheehan said. "In days past, data would be keyed in. But whether branded or private label, you need to get it electronically." When data are keyed into computers by humans, this information has a tendency to become erroneous, leading to discrepancies between trading partners.
But if getting data on a product from one supplier is hard, try getting them from multiple suppliers, as is often case with private label. Thus, data synchronization is a greater challenge for private-label products than for branded ones,
noted Sheehan. "Though we [Shaw's] own and control the private-label product, it's made for us," he explained. "So we have to keep consistency among all the suppliers who make it, and decide which one manages the base data to make sure it's right."
That latter point is key for private label: When there are multiple manufacturers making the same item, the retailer has to select one to serve as the primary supplier who controls all of the base information about the product, with the others following its lead.
Shaw's, of course, determines all of the key specifications for its private-label product, from ingredients to basic look and packaging, and manually provides that information to the suppliers who actually produce it. The primary supplier, however, can introduce slight design modifications, such as the height of a bottle (which other suppliers would follow), subject to Shaw's approval. Once all of the product data is accumulated, it becomes the supplier's responsibility to register it with the UCCnet Global Registry, as part of the electronic data synchronization process, as if they were branded suppliers.
"We control the GTIN [global trade identification number] -- it's our number, our UPC," said Sheehan. "But we give the suppliers the specs, and expect them to send it back to us. Though we're the owners, they're given the rights to publish to us." Of course, unlike a branded product, the information is available only to Shaw's and to no other retailer.
In the latest version of UCCnet's data synchronization services, Release 2.2, UCCnet has introduced procedures to accommodate the slight differences that might occur in the way suppliers ship the same product. Thus, the core information in the GTIN remains constant among suppliers ("The GTIN is held sacred," said Sheehan), but each supplier, identified by a GLN (global location number) is allowed to tweak the logistics slightly, explained Sheehan.
"Let's say the GTIN is for a Shaw's private-label paper towel," he said. "Its case could be 19 inches tall but nobody can make it 25 inches tall without a new GTIN. But another supplier can have a slight variation in the height, say 19.5 inches." The difference is noted with each GLN. "It's important to have this concept," he added, "because you can get the same item from multiple suppliers, and you need the capability to put the item and the location together."
Sheehan said Shaw's couldn't go into production mode on data synchronization with any of its private-label suppliers until the new version of UCCnet came out in July. The chain still has hundreds of private-label products to be synchronized electronically, he noted, but the process has begun. Once they are all in the system, product updates become automatic.